Exhibit Tells Catherine Taylor's Story


In honor of African American History Month, objects once owned by Montpelier slave Catherine Taylor are currently on display in the Joe and Marge Grills Gallery, joining archaeological objects from the recent South Yard excavation.

Born into slavery at Montpelier, Catherine Taylor (ca. 1820-aft. 1892) labored as a house servant for the Madisons. She married another Montpelier domestic servant, Ralph Taylor (ca. 1810-aft. 1892) around 1840, and together they had four children: Henry, Sarah Elizabeth, John, and Ellen Ann. A fifth child, Benjamin, likely died in childhood.1

After James Madison’s death in 1836, all of the Montpelier slaves were willed to Dolley, who took several house servants with her when she traveled to Washington. While Ralph Taylor often accompanied Dolley, Catherine stayed at Montpelier with their children. The first known mention of Catherine or “Caty” is in an 1843 letter from Dolley Madison to her niece, Mary E. E. Cutts. Dolley was concerned about how she would be “waited upon in the Capital” because “Judy, Beck & Caty have little babies” and therefore remained at Montpelier.2 In a May 1844 letter, Paul Jennings instructed Sukey, Dolley’s lady’s maid with her in Washington, to “tel Ralph Catey is well an intend to write to him soon.”3

Upon her death in 1849, Dolley willed her remaining slaves, including the Taylors, to her son, John Payne Todd. While Payne Todd’s will stipulated that all his slaves were to be manumitted upon his death (1852), his dire financial situation complicated the matter. In turn, the Taylors petitioned James C. McGuire, administrator of the estate, and were granted their freedom in 1853. The Taylors continued to live in Washington where, according to the 1880 census, Ralph was a waiter and Catherine kept house.

Catherine Taylor is described in her 1853 Certificate of Freedom as “a dark mulatto woman stout and well made, about thirty two years of age, five feet four and three quarter inches high, round oval face forehead high with good features.” At some point she developed two small scars on the back of her right hand, “occasioned by her hand being, or having been broke.”4 This rare certificate, a document likely carried by Taylor at all times after attaining her freedom, and a head scarf, purportedly owned by Taylor, are on loan to Montpelier from Dumbarton House/The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, Washington, D.C., and will remain on display in the Grills Gallery this spring.


1. Benjamin, the two year old child of Ralph and Catherine Taylor, is mentioned in the Indenture between Dolley Payne Todd Madison and Richard Dominicus Cutts, December 11, 1847, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Unlike the other four Taylor children, Benjamin is not mentioned in Catherine Taylor’s freedom certificate, suggesting he died prior to 1853. 

2. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, 1843, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

3. Paul Jennings to Sukey, May 13, 1844, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

4. Certificate of Freedom for Catharine Taylor and her children, Henry, Sarah Elizabeth, John and Ellen in response to their petition for Freedom, Washington, DC, April 9, 1853, Dumbarton House, MS 69.239, National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, Washington, DC. 










Montpelier Staff